13 “If the whole congregation of Israel sins unintentionally and the thing is hidden from the eyes of the assembly, and they do any one of the things that by the Lord‘s commandments ought not to be done, and they realize their guilt, 14 when the sin which they have committed becomes known, the assembly shall offer a bull from the herd for a sin offering and bring it in front of the tent of meeting. 15 And the elders of the congregation shall lay their hands on the head of the bull before the Lord, and the bull shall be killed before the Lord. 16 Then the anointed priest shall bring some of the blood of the bull into the tent of meeting, 17 and the priest shall dip his finger in the blood and sprinkle it seven times before the Lord in front of the veil. 18 And he shall put some of the blood on the horns of the altar that is in the tent of meeting before the Lord, and the rest of the blood he shall pour out at the base of the altar of burnt offering that is at the entrance of the tent of meeting. 19 And all its fat he shall take from it and burn on the altar. 20 Thus shall he do with the bull. As he did with the bull of the sin offering, so shall he do with this. And the priest shall make atonement for them, and they shall be forgiven. 21 And he shall carry the bull outside the camp and burn it up as he burned the first bull; it is the sin offering for the assembly.” – Leviticus 4:13-21 ESV
The next mandatory blood sacrifice was in the case of the entire community committing an unintentional sin. It seems that it would have been a rare occurrence for the entire nation to be guilty of having committed the same inadvertent sin. How could an entire multitude of people have unknowingly participated in a violation of God’s law without knowing it? It’s difficult to imagine every single Israelite unwittingly or accidentally participating in the very same violation of God’s law.
But the Hebrew word for “congregation” carries a range of meanings that includes a family, crowd, assembly, or gathering. Yet the context of this passage would seem to indicate that God has the entire Israelite community in mind. The actual sin committed might be the work of a few within the community, but God would hold the entire nation responsible. Sin is like an infectious disease and has a way of spreading throughout the entire body if left undetected and untreated. So, even if the violation had been committed by only a handful of the Israelites, the entire nation would find itself impacted by their actions. The impurity of a few would leave the whole congregation in a state of impurity and in need of cleansing.
So, God provided a means of receiving atonement. He wanted His people to take seriously any form of sin within the camp, and there is a powerful example of this in the book of Joshua. When the people of Israel eventually entered the land of Canaan, God gave them a miraculous victory over the city of Jericho. But this was followed by an unexpected defeat at the hands of the much-smaller city of Ai. Joshua chapter 7 opens up with the statement: “But the people of Israel broke faith in regard to the devoted things…” (Joshua 7:1 ESV).
Before they began their siege of Jericho, God had given the people clear instructions concerning their post-victory celebrations.
“Jericho and everything in it must be completely destroyed as an offering to the Lord. Only Rahab the prostitute and the others in her house will be spared, for she protected our spies.
“Do not take any of the things set apart for destruction, or you yourselves will be completely destroyed, and you will bring trouble on the camp of Israel. Everything made from silver, gold, bronze, or iron is sacred to the Lord and must be brought into his treasury.” – Joshua 6:17-20 NLT
But one man decided to ignore God’s command and enrich himself with some of the plunder from the city. And yet, Moses records, “Israel violated the instructions about the things set apart for the Lord” (Joshua 7:1 NLT). God held the entire nation culpable for Achan’s actions. In fact, Moses notes that “the Lord was very angry with the Israelites” (Joshua 7:1 NLT).
Joshua and the rest of the Israelites were completely oblivious to Achan’s sin. So confident of certain victory over the smaller city of Ai, Joshua sent a contingent made up of 3,000 Israelite soldiers, but their mission ended in defeat. And Moses records that “the Israelites were paralyzed with fear at this turn of events, and their courage melted away” (Joshua 7:5 NLT). Joshua, shaken by this unexpected turn of events, called out to God for an explanation. He couldn’t understand why God had failed to intervene on their behalf against the Amorites living in Ai. But what Joshua didn’t know was that sin had entered the camp of Israel. Achan’s violation of God’s command had left the entire community contaminated and worthy of God’s judgment, and God pulled no punches in declaring the seriousness of the situation.
“Israel has sinned and broken my covenant! They have stolen some of the things that I commanded must be set apart for me. And they have not only stolen them but have lied about it and hidden the things among their own belongings. That is why the Israelites are running from their enemies in defeat. For now Israel itself has been set apart for destruction. I will not remain with you any longer unless you destroy the things among you that were set apart for destruction.” – Joshua 7:11-12 NLT
While Achan’s sin had been anything but accidental, the rest of the nation had been unaware of its occurrence. They were ignorant of Achan’s crime but were just as responsible before God as if they had all taken part. And God made it clear that the entire community would be considered impure and responsible for the crime until the guilty party was sought out and exposed.
“Get up! Command the people to purify themselves in preparation for tomorrow. For this is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: Hidden among you, O Israel, are things set apart for the Lord. You will never defeat your enemies until you remove these things from among you.” – Joshua 7:13 NLT
Purification was part of the process. The entire community needed to purge itself of the sin that had left them contaminated and worthy of God’s judgment. The next day, God revealed the identity of the guilty party and ordered his execution.
“The one who has stolen what was set apart for destruction will himself be burned with fire, along with everything he has, for he has broken the covenant of the Lord and has done a horrible thing in Israel.” – Joshua 7:15 NLT
In this case, Achan and his entire family were stoned to death and then burned with fire. The sin was purged from their midst and the nation was spared God’s judgment. But the atonement came at a high price.
And all the Israelites stoned Achan and his family and burned their bodies. They piled a great heap of stones over Achan, which remains to this day. That is why the place has been called the Valley of Trouble ever since. So the Lord was no longer angry. – Joshua 7:25-26 NLT
When it came to the sin/purification offering, God provided a means by which the nation could receive a different form of atonement for inadvertent or unintentional sins committed among them. When someone violated one of God’s laws and it ended up impacting the entire community, there was a way to restore fellowship and receive forgiveness. But it involved a blood sacrifice. A life had to be given so that the guilty might be spared. In this case, it was to be “a bull from the herd” (Leviticus 4:14 ESV). This animal must be free from defects and in perfect health. It represented a payment of high value and illustrated the gravity of the crime committed. Atonement could not be achieved without considerable cost to the guilty party.
As representatives of the people, the elders were to lay their hands on the sacrificial animal, symbolizing its role as their substitute or stand-in. The guilt of the people was symbolically transferred to the bull, then the life of the animal was taken. Its blood was shed so that the Israelites could live and enjoy God’s forgiveness. But before atonement from sin could be enjoyed, the blood of the animal had to be taken by the priest and sprinkled on the veil that separated the Holy Place from the Holy of Holies. The people’s access to God had been impacted by their sin. The entrance into God’s presence, represented by the veil, had been contaminated by sin, and needed to be purified by the blood of the sacrificial animal. As the author of Hebrews reminds us, “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins” (Hebrews 9:22 ESV).
Having purified the veil, the priest was to take the remainder of the blood and purify the bronze altar as well as the altar of incense. This ritual cleansing of the two altars of sacrifice was intended to restore their holiness and reestablish their use for worshiping God. And by following all the details of this pre-established ceremony “the priest shall make atonement for them, and they shall be forgiven” (Leviticus 4:20 ESV).
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001
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.