The Sin Offering (Lev. 4:1-5:13)
When we get to the 4th and 5th chapters of Leviticus, we see God’s instructions for dealing with the sins of the children of Israel by means of animal sacrifice. The categories of sacrifice are different with the sin offering than the burnt offering. Rather than determining the sacrifice based on the relative wealth of the offerer, the sin offering was determined by the position and identity of the guilty person. A young bull was to be offered for the sin of the high priest or of the entire nation, but a young male goat was sufficient for a tribal leader. And the common people could offer either a young female goat or sheep. At the same time, provision was made for the poor, who were allowed to offer two turtledoves or two pigeons, while those who were truly destitute could bring 1/10th of an ephah of flour.
Sin offerings involved bringing the animal to be sacrificed to the door of the Tabernacle, where the guilty person would place his hands on its head before killing it in order to identify himself with the sacrifice. In a case where the whole nation had sinned, the elders of Israel were to place their hands on the head to identify it with the congregation. If it was a sin offering for the high priest or the entire nation, the high priest would collect some of the animal’s blood and sprinkle it 7 times with his finger in front of the veil that separated the holy of holies. Then he would mark the horns of the incense altar with blood and pour out the rest at the base of the altar of burnt offering. The animal’s fat would be burned on the altar to the Lord, and the rest of the carcase would be taken outside the camp and completely burned at the regular disposal site for the ashes from the altar of burnt offering. If it was offered for a ruler or common person, the priest would simply mark the incense altar with blood and pour out the rest at the base of the altar of burnt offering. Then he would take the animal’s fat and burn it on the altar as an offering to the Lord and he would keep the rest of the carcase for his own use. For the poor, the first dove or pigeon would be killed and its blood sprinkled on the side of the altar and the rest drained at the altar’s base, while the second one would be offered as a burnt offering according to the method described in 1:14-17. In the case of the poorest of the people who brought grain for a sin offering, a memorial portion was burned and the rest was given to the priest, like the regular grain offering.
The occasion for the sin offering is stated in Lev. 4:2 as, “If a person sins unintentionally against any of the commandments of the LORD in anything which ought not to be done, and does any of them.” This means that any sin which was committed without premeditation or rebellious intent could be forgiven by the blood of a sin offering. These could be sins of commission or sins of omission; either doing something God said not to or neglecting some duty the Lord had commanded. In 5:1-6, we find some additional detail concerning offenses which required a sin offering. These included failing to tell the whole truth when sworn in for a court proceeding, carelessly coming into contact with an unclean animal or person, and offering a thoughtless vow. Again, these are not acts of rebellion against the Lord, but are simply acts of neglect or irreverence which show a careless attitude toward the commands of God.
Now as far as the actual effect of the sin offering was concerned, we should note that several times throughout these verses the Lord said that “the priest shall make atonement for him, and it shall be forgiven him.” The man who sinned unintentionally, confessed his sin and offered an animal to die in his place, and he was forgiven by God and maintained his place in the midst of the people of God. For the OT saint, the sin offering was given as an act of faith in the promise of God’s grace to forgive sin and cleanse the guilty. In the New Testament, we are told that “the blood of Jesus Christ [God’s] Son cleanses us from all sin” (1 John 1:7), and that Jesus “offered one sacrifice for sins forever…For by one offering He has perfected forever those who are being sanctified.” Where the OT believer had to bring a sin offering every time he became aware of some previously unknown or unintentional sin, the NT Christian enjoys the full and complete forgiveness of every sin and purification from its guilt on the sole basis of the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ. As 1 Peter 2:24 says, “[Christ] Himself bore our sins in His own body on the tree, that we, having died to sins, might live for righteousness – by whose stripes you were healed.”