14 The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 15 “If anyone commits a breach of faith and sins unintentionally in any of the holy things of the Lord, he shall bring to the Lord as his compensation, a ram without blemish out of the flock, valued in silver shekels, according to the shekel of the sanctuary, for a guilt offering. 16 He shall also make restitution for what he has done amiss in the holy thing and shall add a fifth to it and give it to the priest. And the priest shall make atonement for him with the ram of the guilt offering, and he shall be forgiven.
17 “If anyone sins, doing any of the things that by the Lord’s commandments ought not to be done, though he did not know it, then realizes his guilt, he shall bear his iniquity. 18 He shall bring to the priest a ram without blemish out of the flock, or its equivalent, for a guilt offering, and the priest shall make atonement for him for the mistake that he made unintentionally, and he shall be forgiven. 19 It is a guilt offering; he has indeed incurred guilt before the Lord.” – Leviticus 5:14-19 ESV
Verse 14 begins a new section dealing with what has been described as the guilt offering, but what is also referred to as the offering of reparations. The focus remains on sins committed without the individual’s knowledge. While these particular sins could be committed by accident, they were still considered breaches of faith and required the guilty party to make restitution to the Lord.
The Hebrew word used to describe this kind of offering is אָשָׁם (‘āšām), and it can be translated as either “guilt” or “compensation.” What seems to set this offering apart from all the other offerings that have been discussed is the emphasis on the value of the animal to be sacrificed. God stipulated that the guilty party was to bring an unblemished ram that was of great monetary value.
“The offering must be your own ram with no defects, or you may buy one of equal value with silver, as measured by the weight of the sanctuary shekel.” – Leviticus 5:15 NLT
The NET Bible translation of verse 15 implies that the sinner could also bring the cash equivalent of the ram’s value in silver and use that as an offering before the Lord.
“…he must bring his penalty for guilt to the Lord, a flawless ram from the flock, convertible into silver shekels according to the standard of the sanctuary shekel, for a guilt offering.” – Leviticus 5:15 NET
It would appear that this offering required a cash commitment on the part of the sinner. There was also a fine to be paid that was one-fifth of the animal’s value.
Once the individual became aware of their sin, they were expected to make reparations. It is unclear what is meant by “the holy things of the Lord” (Leviticus 15:14 ESV). Some speculate that these sins had something to do with the holy objects located within the Tabernacle. According to the NET Bible Study Notes, “The phrase evidently refers to anything dedicated to God by the Israelites, including the tabernacle, its furnishings, the offerings, houses, lands, and tithes.” Perhaps the sin involved someone unknowingly eating meat that had been dedicated to the priests or they could have inadvertently violated proper protocol concerning behavior in and around the Tabernacle. If they failed to treat God’s priests with proper dignity and respect, this could have incurred God’s judgment. Of course, the possible theft or mistreatment of any sacred property would also be a great offense to God.
Whatever the exact sin might have been, the guilty party was expected to compensate God for what they had done. Their real crime was that they had robbed God of glory. They had mistreated His “holy things” and, in doing so, they had diminished God’s value in the eyes of the people. Everything about the Tabernacle was to be considered holy because it all belonged to God. He had set apart the Tabernacle as His earthly dwelling place and the people of Israel were to treat His home with proper honor and respect.
As with all the other offerings, this one was intended to restore the sinner to a right relationship with God. Though he or she was guilty of having transgressed God’s pre-established standards for behavior, they could be made right with Him once again by following His prescribed plan for atonement.
“Through this process the priest will purify you from your unintentional sin, making you right with the Lord, and you will be forgiven.” – Leviticus 15:18 NLT
Restoration was the goal. God knew that His people were going to violate His commands. He was well aware of their inability to live up to His exacting standards of conduct. So, He provided a means by which their inevitable sins could be atoned for and their broken relationship with Him could be healed.
Verse 15 describes these sins as “a breach of faith.” In Hebrew, this phrase is actually māʿal māʿal and should be translated as “trespasses a trespass.” The idea is that the person has violated a known violation outlined by God. In doing so, they crossed over a boundary that God established between the holy and the common. The Tabernacle and all that was associated with it was to be off-limits to the average Israelite. It was to be treated with awe and reverence and to be used only for holy purposes because it has been consecrated to the Lord. These sins seem to involve cases of someone dishonoring that which was holy by treating it as common or ordinary.
God will eventually task Aaron and his sons with the responsibility of teaching the people of Israel the difference between the holy and the common.
“You must distinguish between what is sacred and what is common, between what is ceremonially unclean and what is clean. And you must teach the Israelites all the decrees that the LORD has given them through Moses.” – Leviticus 10:10-11 NLT
Centuries later, God would reiterate His command that the priests teach the people to discern between the holy and the ordinary.
“They will teach my people the difference between what is holy and what is common, what is ceremonially clean and unclean.” – Ezekiel 44:23 NLT
And God will hold the priests personally responsible for their failure to teach the people how to treat the holy things of God with the honor they deserve.
“Your priests have violated my instructions and defiled my holy things. They make no distinction between what is holy and what is not. And they do not teach my people the difference between what is ceremonially clean and unclean. They disregard my Sabbath days so that I am dishonored among them.” – Ezekiel 22:26 NLT
One of the greatest sins an individual can commit is to treat the holy things of God with dishonor. To treat as ordinary that which God has set apart as His own is to disregard His wishes and to disrespect what He has deemed worthy of honor. If a priest were to take one of the holy vessels from the Tabernacle and use it for a common purpose, he would be trespassing a trespass. He would be guilty of treating the holy as ordinary. And any person who unknowingly treated that which was holy as common would stand before God as guilty and deserving of judgment. But restitution and restoration were possible. Forgiveness was available. But, as is always the case, atonement came with a price.
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.